“Dear God, pull yourself together,” I thought while looking at my teary face in the bathroom mirror, my eyes still puffy and red after having quietly wept in a stall for what felt like an hour. I was at my first real, adult job since graduating from journalism school, and had never cried in such a public space. It was clear that I had reached a breaking point: Although I had come out as a gay man to friends and family years earlier, I was walking right back into the closet and locking my true identity away every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. all so I could assimilate into the American workforce.
It took years to discover an empowering realization: my sexuality, the confidence it brings me, and the freedom I feel to be myself, are all traits that can help me excel not just in my personal life, but in my career as well. Instead of masking these differences or abandoning them entirely, I decided I would proudly wear them as my badge of honor; even when I’m the only openly queer person in the room.
I’ve since learned to shut out the fear of what employers may think about my sexuality, but it’s taken a lot of work. I developed two identities at the beginning of my career, to cope with the unending anxiety of simply being myself in front of management. One identity was that of an openly gay man, deeply in love with his boyfriend, brunch, and Beyoncé. He danced lightly, occasionally burst into song, and spoke his mind at any chance he could. He didn’t care what straight people thought of him; in fact, he got a rise if ever they were uncomfortable by his presence.
That identity the actualized version of a gay man I had always hoped to become, and finally did never entered the workplace, however. Instead, the identity I brought with me to the office was an artificial creation I invented for camouflage.
My first job wasn’t the best introduction to corporate America, to say the least. I was hired by a startup in its early stages, and quickly learned two things in my first week: I was the first and only openly gay man hired by the company, and the all-male management had no idea I wasn’t sexually interested in women.
In order to blend in, I initially hid my sexuality to upper management and concealed the liberated identity I developed for myself over the years. Instead of defending my female colleagues, or shutting down my boss whenever he’d call someone a “faggot,” I quietly went along with it all, as the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach continued to grow. To this day, I regret not having the courage to speak out during those moments.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I wasn’t alone in worrying about standing out for the wrong reasons as the only gay man in the office. A 2014 Human Rights Campaign study found the majority of LGBTQ Americans work in spaces where they’re closeted to colleagues and employers, often fearing retaliation or negative perceptions.
Twenty-five percent of LGBTQ folks experienced employment discrimination in the last five years, while over two million members of the community struggle to put food on their tables, according to the workplace advocacy group, Out & Equal.
My next job would forever change the way I conducted myself in the workplace. I landed a writing and reporting position at Mic, a media startup promising to become an online news destination for millennials. Its staff was comprised of tolerant, progressive thinkers, and nearly two dozen LGBTQ employees.
Those of us who openly identified as members of the queer community were invited to a secret channel on the instant messaging platform Slack, where we often exchanged words of support, encouragement, gossip, and advice.
Mic went on to have a far more successful trajectory than the company I previously worked for. I have no doubt it was in part due to their tolerance of various identities. The Williams Institute assessed 36 research studies on the business impact of policies supporting queer employees, finding “LGBT-supportive policies in the workplace is associated with reduced incidence of discrimination, and less discrimination is associated with better psychological health and increased job satisfaction among LGBT employees Healthier, more committed LGBT employees are likely to make greater contributions to the workplace.”
It may seem obvious to some, but committing to inclusion and equality in the workplace allows everyone to thrive. With the right measures in place, women, people of color, and other minorities can take a budding start up and turn it into an institution, with plenty of room for everyone’s voices to be heard.
When a job offer for a serious reporting position with Newsweek Media Group came along, I accepted it without hesitation. I wasn’t worried about having supportive colleagues or LGBTQ peers: I was hell-bent on extracting everything I could get out of this opportunity for my career, even if it turned out I was once again the only openly gay man in the office.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened.
In many ways, the various acts of exclusion and discrimination I experienced while working for this company were far worse than what went on during my first job. Whereas my previous employers didn’t bother even pretending to care about equality, management at Newsweek wanted to be seen as welcoming and inclusive despite reinstating an alleged sexual harasser and reportedly facing potential class-action discrimination lawsuits.
I was working in the largest editorial team I had ever been a part of in New York City, at one of the oldest news magazines in the nation, and yet I was the only openly gay man at the publication’s headquarters (only one other gay man was employed by the company at the time, and worked remotely in a part-time position). In my opinion, there was an incredibly obvious fear embedded in the C-suite of Newsweek’s parent company in having someone considered “other” representing the brand. I was denied many of the same opportunities that were often handed to the company’s heteronormative employees predominantly white men. I was casually referred to as “flamboyant” on several occasions by upper management.
Still, I vowed to myself I would be fearless in any situation where I felt shot down for being LGBTQ, so I was. At this point in my life, I refused to work for a company that failed to recognize my value, simply because of my sexuality.
That, of course, led to some uncomfortable conversations and tense exchanges. But we live and operate in systems of institutionalized racism and superiority, well-suited almost exclusively for the advancement of heteronormative white men. Decades of work and grassroots activism across minority communities have paved the way for substantial change to be made, but there is still much more to be done. Being open about what makes oneself truly unique, even in the face of adversity or exclusion, is a tremendous way to continue our progress while inspiring others to do the same. It takes every single one of us speaking out and showing the world who we truly are, and what we can truly accomplish.
With or without anyone’s help.